I wanted to share a recent restaurant experience over Thanksgiving weekend that is still very noteworthy during this holiday season hustle. After a long weekend road trip, we stopped at a local steakhouse to grab a late dinner. First mistake – never eat late after 9 pm or near closing. My daughter had already eaten at one of her favorite ‘allergy-friendly’ spots about two hours earlier. I thought she may not be as hungry as the adults. Our second mistake.
We get seated and review the menu. My daughter joins in on what she thinks she may want. We’re used to this. We’ve eaten here before, but it’s been awhile. When the server arrives, we discuss her food allergies. And the manager comes over and introduces himself and brings us the monthly Allergen Guide. Kudos on the updated monthly allergen guide!
Before reviewing the guide I mention my daughter wanted Baby Back Ribs. She’s had them before and I ask the manager to share how they are prepared. The manager informs us the steaks (topped with nuts) are prepared on the same grill as the ribs – “There is no way she can have that – I’m sorry.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that!
Decoding the guide
I glance at the children’s menu section of the allergen guide – there’s no mention of the common allergen “nuts” for ribs. But it has a noted risk of cross contamination – actually almost all of the children’s menu items have that risk.
And the guide has the disclaimer like most restaurants “we cannot completely eliminate the risk of cross-contamination or guarantee that any item is free of any allergen.”
We have decoded these allergen guides with our daughter ever since she could read and understand symbols.
But, it was late – she wasn’t feeling it or interested in looking at any allergen guides that night. She just gave me “that look.” She puts her head down on the table, then looks up and directly asked me, “Why did we even come here?” That was my third mistake. Mom guilt sets in.
The manager was standing there, clearly feeling restaurant guilt. He tries to accommodate and offer her Macaroni and Cheese or fruit. Really? Ribs versus fruit and pasta. She politely responds, “That’s okay, I’m not that hungry.”
We have been dining out with food allergies for a few years. I’m usually better about planning, but not that day. I’ll admit that. I had experiences where chefs meet with me personally, voluntarily go to a different grill area, clean it, and prepare a dish she wants just for her. Not that night.
I have access to use apps for restaurant reviews, but I still use personal judgment when we arrive.
Sidebar – Maryland Restaurant Law effective March 2015
Starting March 1, 2015 in Maryland, restaurants will be required to: have one employee on premises at all times with food allergen awareness training; ask customers to inform them about their food allergies and discuss meal options. If you want to call Kraft Macaroni cheese and fruit – “options” – okay. It’s a step forward, but not a leap.
I am aware of the rules of how to handle places you’ve been before. I know it’s not good to eat late. In my rush to go to a place we’ve been before and to satisfy hungry adults (myself included), I thought she would be covered and accommodated. That was the worst mistake. We could have gone to a different place; it was too late in the night.
We all lost our appetite. Beyond the allergen decode debacle, service was slow. Our party of six arrived with a steak appetite and most just ordered an appetizer and drinks. We received complimentary free desserts. My daughter nor I wanted to risk dessert for her by now.
The lessons never end –
- You can’t always anticipate accommodations at a restaurant, even if you’ve been before.
- Preparation is everything when dining out with food allergies at any hour of the day or night.